first person

The sun-soaked innocence and debauchery of How to Have Sex brings back my first parent-free holiday abroad

Molly Manning Walker’s debut film got a standing ovation at Cannes. Jessie Thompson marvels at how the details chime with her teenage memories of flying to Tenerife with her friends

Wednesday 01 November 2023 13:25 GMT
Mia McKenna Bruce as Tara in ‘How to Have Sex’
Mia McKenna Bruce as Tara in ‘How to Have Sex’ ( )

When I look back at the photos now, I find myself curious. Who am I really looking at, I wonder – who is that girl? There I am: 17, hair bright blonde, eyes smudged with Barry M Dazzle Dust, a Marlboro Light living permanently in my right hand. I left these aspects of my personal aesthetic behind in 2008, and 15 years have passed; I do not look like this any more. But it’s bigger than that. As I study and scrutinise her, I cannot decipher what I was thinking or feeling. Am I happy? Having fun? Or was I just pretending?

The pictures were taken on my first unsupervised holiday abroad; a gaggle of seven of us girls stuffed our bags with Primark bikinis and wedges we couldn’t walk in, and giddily escaped from our parents. The world – or, at least, Playa de las Americas – was our oyster. We had done our AS-levels and we were going to Tenerife, but these rite-of-passage trips, meant for engaging in the sort of behaviour that might make your mum and dad faint, happen every summer in a roll call of interchangeable locations: Zante, Magaluf, Ibiza, Ayia Napa, Faliraki.

In Molly Manning Walker’s debut film How to Have Sex, the destination is Malia in Crete, but the details remain the same: the neon-lit strips; the DayGlo tans; the air thick with an antsy desire to break some rules. In the film, three girlfriends fly off to a cheap-looking hotel in search of adventure, indulging in a performative brand of hedonism that is distinctively teenage in its prioritisation of looking “cool” above actual enjoyment. Em (Enva Lewis) has her looming GCSE results in the back of her mind; the more sexually experienced Skye (Lara Peake) is ready to run riot; Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce) wants to shrug off the mortifying albatross of her virginity. Tara, to whom this story belongs, is all bolshy, flirtatious sweetness until she’s standing in a club, watching a boy she’s just met getting a blow job on stage; her innocence seems to crumble before our eyes, and before she herself is ready.

There was a simple pattern to those holidays: you’d get ready, then you’d go out. You’d totter into clubs – we were underage, but no one asked for ID there – and line up the shots, dance sweatily, snog boys, then stumble home at sunrise, eating chips. Then you’d do it all again. A week is, perhaps, the perfect amount of time for this; a human body couldn’t endure it for a single day longer. Manning Walker has said herself that these trips were a part of her coming of age: weeks spent “sitting by the pool, talking absolute nonsense all day long, going out drinking all night, non-stop partying for a week… you pay €25 to get into the club, you get unlimited drinks all night”. But she adds also that “stuff happened… and we didn’t even recognise it as bad. Because we were too busy bigging each other up. ‘You slept with someone! So good!’”

The film received an eight-minute standing ovation in Cannes, because it’s more than just a perfectly observed recreation of British teens on the loose. It’s also a subtle study of the strange, sometimes scary liminal space between girlhood and adulthood, populated by the pressure to have sex and enjoy it, and the sense of paralysis and confusion when things don’t seem quite right, but you don’t know why. There’s a wry comedy to Tara and her girlfriends asking each other “was he good?” and replying “he knew what he was doing” – but there’s a sadness too. Of course they don’t know what they’re doing; no one knows what they’re doing.

How to Have Sex sent me searching through those memories. The world of sun cream stuck under our fingernails, tiles too hot to walk on by the pool, crushed ice in cocktails served in fish bowls with seven straws: that was a world I recognised. But it was the film’s hinterland – the place where things aren’t said – that compelled me. How do the girlfriends I holidayed with feel about our delirious week of vodka Red Bulls in Tramps and Linekers? How do they remember the shared beds and sunloungers that became a tangle of beach towels, borrowed dresses and brightly coloured bikini bottoms? I don’t know; I lost touch with them. I certainly don’t know how they felt about it then, because I don’t know how I felt about it either. In fact, there’s an odd kind of blankness. At the end of it all, I felt like I had completed something – but I also didn’t really feel the desire to do it again.

If we’d been anxious or lost or overwhelmed, we wouldn’t have talked about it anyway. Our brains were programmed to have a certain experience. The point was that you were having the BEST TIME. This was the BEST WEEK EVER. You were going to SNOG BOYS and LOOK FIT and get SOOOO DRUNK. Life, for a brief moment, was lived in capital letters – anything else and you got left behind. It was like adulthood in drag; we were playing at being grown-up, but an exaggerated, turbo-charged, unreal version of it. Case in point: I smoked two packets of Marlboro Lights a day, simply because they only cost €2 and there was no one around to tell me not to. When I got home, I posted a picture of the hotel’s cigarette machine, with the caption “best friend for the week”. (Also, when I got home, I sounded like Bet Lynch.)

Jessie Thompson aged 17 in Tenerife ( Supplied)

Anything that had a trace of childhood attached to it made me roll my eyes. I didn’t want to be anywhere near karaoke in the tragic hotel bar, because there was no time to waste. At around 9pm, I’d physically itch to be out among the throng, playing this new, different, carefree me, someone who tested the limits of fun and wanted to talk to 50 new people a night. I was, I fear, being “too much”. Not everyone, I’m certain, liked how I was behaving – but I was convinced I was the one doing it right. I was having the BEST WEEK EVER. I was SOOOO DRUNK and I was SNOGGING BOYS.

In How to Have Sex, Tara’s friend Em gets together with a girl and no one bats an eyelid; conversely, the atmosphere in Tenerife was aggressively heterosexual. This was about boys meeting girls, and the most important thing in the world, it seemed to me at the time, was proving that boys liked you. Did we like them? I’m not sure it was a question we’d ever have thought to ask ourselves.

You were going to SNOG BOYS and LOOK FIT and get SOOOO DRUNK. Life, for a brief moment, was lived in capital letters

Those old photos are populated by boys whose names I can’t remember. They wear TENERIFE 08 polo shirts, or are dressed, inexplicably, as Smurfs. What the hell did we talk about? I just don’t know. Tara in How to Have Sex befriends a sweet boy who calls himself “Badger”, a nickname he’s gone so far as to have tattooed above his belly button. I realised: I know this boy. I’ve met him. I spent my week having a holiday romance with a young man from Yorkshire who had his own name tattooed on his back in Gothic script. (I also spent the week secretly sneaking around so I could talk to other boys without getting caught by my new, tattooed Tenerife boyfriend – because no one wants to be tied down at 17.) We remained Facebook friends for years, until it started to feel wrong to be able to digitally surveil the adult life of a boy I knew once for a week when we were just kids, and I severed the connection with the click of a button.

Other questions occur to me. I wore tiny dresses and itsy-bitsy white shorts. Where did I put my stuff? My money, my phone? In How to Have Sex, the girls walk home at 3am eating chips. All they seem to eat are chips. What did I eat? Did I ever eat? And… what did our mums think? Did any of us ever speak to our mums and let them know we were still alive? In fact, who even arranged this holiday in the first place – was it our mums?

In ‘How to Have Sex’, three girlfriends go to Malia for their first unsupervised holiday ( )

When I got home, my voice lost for at least a week, the contents of my suitcase smelling like an ashtray, I seem to recall feeling like I’d survived something. Perhaps because days ended with the sun coming up: I had quickly adapted to a nocturnal way of living in which I napped in the hotel all day before staying out all night. The Malia of How to Have Sex, with its horny pool parties and drinking forfeits that demand public foreplay, seems intensely more terrifying than my relatively innocent week of shenanigans in Tenerife. And yet, still, I wondered: why were we allowed to go? Was anyone worried about us? Would they have been right to be?

A few weeks later, I went to Madeira for a week with my parents, where you could get a jug of sangria but you couldn’t find anyone else below the age of 45. It was a shocking bump to earth, drying out among the sun-kissed geriatrics (or so I thought of them at the time). I read a bunch of books and recuperated from the exhausting extroversion spent on my wild partying week with my friends; I’ve never again in my life had such a good tan. But reality was coming down the tracks – leaving school, trying to carve out some kind of future – and over the next few years I would feel lost, timid and unsure, wanting to be that girl again who, during that odd blip of a week, had the confidence to talk to strangers. Wanting to be back in a moment when having no money didn’t matter, because there was always a hopeful-looking boy ready to buy you a sex on the beach. When the biggest problem was deciding how to tackle a hangover, or whether to wear the sparkly dress or the halterneck top.

Who, then, is that girl in the pictures? Was she having a good time? How to Have Sex will send most of us tripping back through our memories, trying to fill in the gaps. One thing did come back to me, though. That summer, I was convinced that “Dance Wiv Me” by Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris was the BEST SONG I’D EVER HEARD. I squealed at DJs to play it; ran in from smoking areas at the sound of the first few bars. Dancing to “Dance Wiv Me”, young, drunk and unsupervised, with my perfect 17-year-old skin and a cocktail in my hand, I was, for three and a half minutes, not trying to be a woman. I was happy being a girl, and I was completely, utterly free.

‘How to Have Sex’ is in cinemas from 3 November

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